Embattled fertility doctor Ricardo H. Asch has sold his Newport Beach home, fueling fears that he and former partner Jose P. Balmaceda have left the country for good.
County property records reveal that Asch, one of three physicians implicated in the UC Irvine fertility clinic scandal, sold his $1-million residence in the gated community of Big Canyon about the time that federal agents raided the home and Asch's Santa Ana medical office in search of evidence. In July, Asch also sold an oceanfront, $2-million Del Mar property.
News of the latest sale came after investigators began worrying over the possibility that Asch and Balmaceda have fled the United States before any criminal charges can be filed--or civil judgments rendered--against them.
Asch suspended his Santa Ana medical practice about a month ago and left the country for Mexico and Europe. Balmaceda left for Chile more than two months ago. His Corona del Mar home was sold in July, and his medical office in Laguna Hills is being closed in early November.
"Frankly, we are concerned that the physicians may not be around to expedite or help with resolution of [the] issues" raised by allegations of human egg and embryo thefts at the UC Irvine fertility clinic, said a source familiar with the investigations of the doctors.
Attorneys for Asch and Balmaceda insist that the two doctors plan to return to this country. Asch's criminal attorney, Ronald G. Brower, said Monday that the doctor sold the home because he needs the money for legal expenses.
Asch, Balmaceda and a third partner, Sergio C. Stone, have been accused by UC Irvine of misappropriating human eggs and embryos, insurance fraud, financial wrongdoing and research misconduct. They are also the subject of outside investigations into possible mail fraud, the smuggling of fertility drugs and tax evasion. Attorneys for the three have steadfastly denied any intentional wrongdoing by the doctors.
The doctors face hefty legal bills because the University of California has refused to pay for their defense in 10 civil suits filed by former patients. UC argues that the doctors' actions fell outside the scope of their employment.
Even before the fertility scandal broke, Asch and Balmaceda had strong personal and financial ties abroad and practiced routinely at clinics in Europe and Latin America. Asch is a native of Argentina, and Balmaceda was born in Chile.
An attorney said Stone occasionally travels abroad but has no plans to leave the United States permanently.
Although Asch was still in the country at the time of the Sept. 19 raids at the physicians' homes and offices, he left shortly afterward for a long-planned "speaking tour" of Mexico and Europe, Brower said. The doctor has closed his Santa Ana medical practice only temporarily, Brower said, because federal investigators would not allow him to retrieve or copy patients' files seized in the raids.
Brower insisted that Asch's family is still in Orange County, living in a leased home in an undisclosed location. He said he had spoken with the doctor a few days ago, when Asch was in a European country where he was guest speaker at a fertility conference.
Balmaceda's attorney, Patrick Moore, could not be reached Monday. But he said more than a week ago that his client is tending to his sick mother in Chile and will return to the United States.
Asch and Balmaceda cannot be forced to return to the United States unless criminal charges are filed and they are subject to extradition, attorneys involved in the case said. Even then, there is no guarantee that the foreign countries where they are residing will agree to extradite them.
Some of the attorneys who have sued Asch and his two partners on behalf of former patients are worried. If the doctors liquidate their assets and settle abroad, their clients could have a tough time recovering any judgments levied against the doctors personally, they said.
"Of course, [their absence is] of grave concern to me," said Larry Feldman, a Santa Monica attorney who represents three families in suits alleging that the three doctors stole their eggs or embryos and gave them to others.
If the university is successful in its argument that it is not liable, he said, "there might not be any place for the victims of their wrongdoing to seek redress. We could win and not collect a penny."
But Feldman and other attorneys hastened to argue that the university is liable for negligence in its supervision of the doctors' practice.